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Change would ease access to some 'net data

  |   July 29, 2010 at 8:15 AM
WASHINGTON, July 29 (UPI) -- A proposal would make it easier to access Internet activity records if FBI agents deem the data relevant to a terrorism or intelligence inquiry, officials said.

The Obama administration wants to add "electronic communication transactional records" to the list of items the FBI may demand without a court order, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

The proposed category of information could include addresses of e-mail recipients; times and dates e-mail was sent and received; and possibly a user's browser history, government attorneys told the Post. It doesn't include the content of e-mail or other Internet communication.

Administration officials said the proposal would correct a legal ambiguity, but industry lawyers and privacy advocates said the change would expand the power the government has through so-called national security letters, issued by an FBI field office on its own authority, that require the recipient to provide the requested information and to keep the request secret.

Critics also said the proposed change would expand the amount and type of personal data the government can obtain without a court order, the Post said.

"You're bringing a big category of data -- records reflecting who someone is communicating with in the digital world, Web browsing history and potentially location information -- outside of judicial review," said Michael Sussmann, a Justice Department lawyer during President Bill Clinton's administration who currently represents Internet-related firms.

Senior administration officials said the proposal was meant to overcome concerns raised by Internet and other companies that existing law did not permit them to provide electronic records without a court order.

"This clarification will not allow the government to obtain or collect new categories of information, but it seeks to clarify what Congress intended when the statute was amended in 1993," Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said.

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